The African Political Structure (650-1900)

Figure 1.--The caption of this drawing read, "A Negro King full dressed in Monmouth street cloaths [sic] with his wives and children," shows the king in European regalia carrying an umbrella in one hand and his staff of office in the other; he is followed by two women (one carrying an infant on her back), and a small child ( wearing an amulet around his/her neck). The author writes that on November 12, 1805, "The prince of Marabou . . . paid us a visit, and the captain presented him with an old cocked hat . . . . We found he owned . . . fifty slaves, and was on the point of commencing a war for the express purpose of liquidating the debt [by acquiring captives]. . . . I have given him a drawing of him, exactly as he was dressed" (p. 15). Spilsbury, a surgeon aboard the Favourite, made the "various sketches from which the accompanying engravings have been produced . . . the drawings and portraits were made on the spot" (pp. iii-iv). Source: Francis B. Spilsbury, "Account of a voyage to the Western coast of Africa; performed by His Majesty's sloop Favourite, in the year 1805" (London, 1807), facing p. 42. The copy is held in the Special Collections Department, University of Virginia Library.

The African political structure is difficukt to describe over the very long period in which the Arab slave trade in Africa took place. The rrade was conducted over 12 centuries, roughly from 650-1900. It is important, however, to roughly sketch the political structure to understand the ebvironment in which both Europeans and Arabs conducted the slave trade. The Arabs conquered North Africa from a very early stage of the Islamic expansion. Arab traders penetrated into sub-Saharan Africa through desert caravans, the Nilr River, and by estanlish trading postas along the Indian coast of the continent. The black African kingdoms they encountered as they moved into the interior varied over time. Europeans had little access to Africa, blocked for centuries by Arab control of North Africa. This only began to change in the 15th century with the European voyages of discovery with the Portuguese edgeing their way down the African coast. Like the Arabs along the Indian Ocean coast, European influence along the Atlantic coast was first limited to coastal regions.

North Africa

The Vandals, a Germanic tribe, established Christian kingdoms in North Africa after the fall of Rome. The Arabs conquered North Africa from a very early stage of the Islamic expansion. Arab armies spearheaded the spread of Islam across North Africa. After seizing Egypt there was no military opposition or strong political state in the rest of North Africa to resist the Arabs. The Berbers people were a warlike nomadic group who inhabited much of North Africa south of the settled coastal areas. They at first resisted the Arabs, but eventually converted and became Arabized. The populatin was heavily concentrated along the coast.

The Sahara

The Sahara like all deserts was thinly populated. Desert cities developed in antiquity that were sustained by the trade between the Mediterranen basin and sub-Saharan black Africa. Major commodities included salt, gold, slaves, and cloth. Trade was conducted by cammal caravans. Some agriculture was possible through irrigation. The climate of north Africa was not as arid in abtiquity as it uis oiday. One factor in the decline of Rome was the changing climate. Major trading cities included: Tahert, Oualata, Sijilmasa, Zaouila, and others. The cities were ruled by Arab/Berber chiefs (Tuaregs). Their actual independence varied over time and depended on the fluctuating power of the Maghrebi and Egyptian states.

The Sahel

The Sahel is the region immediately south of the Sahara desert in Africa. streaching frpm the Atlantic Ocean in the west clear across Africa to the Red Sea. The Sahel is a arrow band of semi-arid land south of the Sahara. Academicians describe it as the 'ecoclimatic and biogeographic zone of transition' between the Sahara desert in the North and the more watered Sudanian Savannas in the south. The transitional ecoregion of semi-arid grasslands, savannas, steppes, and thorn shrublands. The Saharan and Sahel ecozones have varied over time as a result of climate change, srongly affecting the history, economy, abd culture of the area. The Arabic word sāḥil (ساحل ) literally means "shore, coast", describing the appearance of the vegetation of the Sahel at the edge of the Saharan sand. The Sahel today includes parts seceral African countries. The Sahel begins in along the Atlantic coast of northern Senegal, southern Mauritania, central Mali, southern Algeria and Niger, central Chad, southern Sudan, northern South Sudan, and finally ends in Eritrea on the Red Sea. The Sahel area extends 5,400 km (3,400 mi) west to east, in a kind of belt that varies from several hundred to a thousand kilometers (620 miles) in width. It is a huge area exceeding 3 million kilometers (1,2 million square miles). The topography is mainly flat, featureless terraine. Mos of it is at an elevation between 200-400 meters in elevation. There are some isolated plateaus and even mountain ranges crossing the Sahel creating destibce ecosystens. . Annual rainfall varies from north tp south. In the more norerly regions along the Sahara precipitation mounts to about 200 mm annually, but can reach 600 mm further south. The cities of the Sahel (Timbuktu, Djenné, and Koumbi Saleh) are places of myth and lengend, but today are increasingly more set in the Sahara than Sahel. Some of Africa's most important civilizations rose in the Sahel and adjoining areas because contriling trade routes geberated enormous wealth. The Sahel attracted Arabs looking for gold, ivory, and slaves from West Africa. The people of the south wanted salt produced in the north. The Taureg in the Shara played a key role in the developing trade. The trade and contact between different peoples created a culturally complex area. With the coming of the Europeans, the western and southern Sahel was primarily colonized by the French. The wealth is today largely gone. The region is today one of the poorest and most environmentally damaged places on earth. And until recently one of the least known. The Sahel captured the attention of the international media as awsult of drought and famine in which some 0.2million people died (1970s). Conditions have since improved somewhat, but isstill troubled with soil erosion, insufficient irrigation, deforestation, overpopulation, desertification, and drought--all dreadful problems for a largely agrarian region.

West African/Sahel Empires

The area was the birtplace of four of the most important African empires. The largest and most enduring was Ghana. They were followed first by Mali and then Songhay. Somewhat further south overlapping with Central Africa was another empire--the Kanem. The Arabs in North Africa called sub-Saharan Africa the Sûdân, meaning land of the Blacks. This is the origin of modern Sudan. The Arabs encountered a civilization in Sub-Saharan Africa that was of ancient origins and had only limited contact with the wider world. There were some large established kingdoms, but much of the area was controlled by loosely affiliated ethnically diverse tribes without any strong central organization. For the Arabs, Sub-Saharan western and central Africa offered a source of raw materials (including gold and ivory) and a pool of manual labor that could be exploited. Several kingdoms rose and fell over time. Some of the most important included: Ghana, Mali, the Kanem-Bornu Empire, and many short lived lesser states. These early kingdoms resist Muslim invaders, but gradually became largely Islamicized. Depending on the level of power which varied over time, they could resist Arab slave raiding, but they also trafficed in slaves with the Arabs. Thus captive Africans were one of the important commodities which flowed north with the Arab desert caravans. The Royal Navy played a major role in ending the Atlantic slave trade. Europeans colonization in the Gulf of Guinea during the late 19th and early 20th century finally brought the Arab trans-Saharan slave trade to an end.

Ghana (4th-13th centuries)

The earliest known indigenous African empire was Ghana covering a large area of sub-Saharan West Africa beyond the boundaries of the modern country which bears its name. The actual boundaries were not well defined and varied with the level of power exerted by the central power. The center of the Empire was built around rivers which were the primary means of communication and commerce. The major areas of control were the Senegal River and upper Niger. The Empire also had varying degrees of authority over neighboring peoples and exerted tribute. The origins of the Ghanian Empire are murky. It is known to have existed by the 4th century AD, but its origins probably pre-date the Christian era. The Arabs thus encountered a well-established African civilization in West Africa. The political organization appears to be a confederacy of important settlements. The Empire was divided into provinces which were furher sub-divided. The kingship (Tungka) and other high officers were hereditry. Records are limited, but suggest that the Empire was not built primarily by military conquest. The economy was built on agriculture, including gardents and date groves. Sheep and cattle were also raised. The agricultural economy was affected over time by droughts. Here the climate change appears to have been a factor. Trading was also important to the economy and the primary trading partner was with the north. In antiquity this meant the Roman Empire. After the fall of Rome this meant the Vandal kingdom of North Africa and than the Arabs who conquered North Africa. The most important town was Kumbi-Kumbi. The religion was like most of Africa animistic. The Tungka was at the head of the relion. Islamc gradually was accepted by the people and was pronounced by the 10th century. The Arab influence benefitted the economy and this allowed the Empire to expand. The Tunka converted to Islam (11th century). The increased power of the Empire was able to impose control over the trade routes. Ghana imported wheat, fruit, sugar, brass, pearls, and salt. They exported rubber, ivory, slaves, and gold. The Empire reached the peak of its power during the Sisse dynasty. A fanatical Muslim group, the Almoravides invaded the Empire (1076). They captured Kumbi-Kumbi and killed thoe who refused to convert to Islam. The ensuing religious strife and droughts resulted in the decline of the Empire (late-11th century). Invaders destroyed the Empire (12th-13th centuries). [Franlin, pp. 11-13.]

Mali (13th-17th centuries)

The Mali Empire rose as the Ghanian Empire declined. Its origins as a small, unimportant kingdom are much earlier (7th century). King Baramendana Keita conveted to Islam, convinced Moslems brought rain that ended a drought (middle-11th century). This was before the people of the Sahel were heavily Islamizied. The King made a pilgrimage to Mecca and appointed Muslims to his court and made alliances with Muslim groups to the north. Kangaba was a mere tribal center and gradually expanded to become an imperial capital. Several small states (Soso, Diara, Galam, and others) had risen on the ruins of the old Ghanian Empire. These were conquerd by the Malians. King Sundiate Keita conquered Soso and leveled Kumbi-Kumbi, the old Ghanian capital (1240). The Malian Empire extended over what in the early-20th century was French West Africa, a greater expanse than the Ghanian Empire. The modern country of Mali is only a small part of the Malian Empire. The economy was largely agricultural, but there was also weaving and mining. [Franlin, pp. 14-16.] This new Empire reached its peak under Mansa Musa (14th century). Musa seized Tombouctou and Mali became a center of Muslim scholarship. This was at the same time that the Renaissance was beginning to remake Europe and modern science began to develop. In Mali the focus continued to be on Islam and religious scholarsgip. Tombouctou and Djenné were also key links in the eastern trans-Sahara caravan trade. Over time the Mali Empire declined and by the time the Europeans were beginning to make inroads in coastal areas had desintegrated (17th century). The nomadic Tuareg came to dominate the northern Sagharan area of the former Mali Empire.

Songhay (15th century)

The Songhai Empire at first centered on the Middle Niger Rivert (8th century), but graduually shifted to Gao. The Songhai expanded west as the Mali Empire declined. The Songhai seized Tombouctou (1468). This was a significant event as Tombouctou was such an important trading center and thus source of wealth. The major Songhai rulers at the peak of the Empire were Sonni 'Ali Ber (r.1464–92) and Askia Muhammad I (r.1492–1528). Emperor Sonni Ali Ber (1464–92) expanded the Empire's territory through a series of wars. He reduced many captives taken in war to slavery. The conquered tribes also had to pay tribute and this provided more slaves.

Kanem-Bornu (13th-19th centuries)

The Karem arose in an area that might be called the Sahel or Central Africa. Kanuri tribes began to settle in Kanem (12th century). The Kanuri began to conquer the surrounding tribes (early-13th century). Its origins were a tribal confederation of African peoples. Their great leader was Mai Dunama Dibbalemi (1221-59). He converted to Islam and declared jihad on the surrounding tribes. The result was a war stunningly successful of conquest. The Kanuri controlled an area streaching from Libya to Lake Chad to Hausaland. These were economically strategic areas. Caravans attempting to reach north Africa had to pass through Kanuri territory. Their military and commercial growth of Kanem gradually changed the Kanuri from a nomadic to a sedentary people. Internal rivalries seriously weakened the Empire (late-14th century). Power gradually shifted south from Kanem to Bornu. This was a Kanuri kingdom south and west of Lake Chad. When rival Songhay fell, Bornu expanded very rapidly filling the cacuume. Idris Alawma was able to unite the Kanuri Bornu with the Kanem areas ( (1575-1610). He was a fervent Muslim and woked to building an Islamic state ehich extended west to Hausaland (northern Nigeria). Kanem-Bornu woiuld endure 200 more years. It finally fell to the Hausa (1846). This was just before the British began expanding their colonia holdings.


The first known kingdom developed around Axum (3rd century BC). Axum developeed from the Semitic Sabeam kingdoms in southern Arabia. Here geography was a factor. The Horn of Aftrica shoots out into the Indian Ocean toward Arabia. This provided a natural channel for trade and commuication. Axum came to control the ivory market in northeast Africa. Axum conquered most of Yemen and southern Arabia. The earliest written information on Ethiopian history comes from the Bible when it was reported that the Queen of Sheba visited King Solomon (1000 BC). Axum gradually encroached on the Meroe kingdom in modern Sudan, eventually conquering it. A Syrian, Frumentius, grew up in Axum and converted the King and Christianity became the state religion. Frumentius became the first Bishop of Ethiopia (330 AD). Axum survived as an important regional power until the rise of Islam. The Ethiopian Solomonic dynasty exported Nilotic slaves from their western provinces or from conquered areas. After the beginning of the Islamic era, this at time meant Muslims captured in war. [Pankhirst, p.432.] Muslim Ethiopian sultanates also exported slaves, but only non-Muslim Africans capture or obtained in trade. The Adal Sultanate also played a war.

East Africa

Historians believe the people of East Africa entered the Iron Age relatively early (6th century BC). There is evidence that people in the Great Lakes area (modern Uganda and Rwanda) wre the first to smelt iron. This was before iron technology reached Westen Africa. East Africa was exposed to Arab penetration because armed Arab merchants controlled the Red Sea and Indian Ocean. The Arabs set up trading posts all long the coast. The first outposts were transitory and faced opposition from local tribes. Many were small-scale efforts on the part of exiles or military adventurers (8th and 9th centuries). The Arabs commanded the sea, however, and gradually the Arab trading posts became more permanent. The Arabs gradually spread Islam among the African tribes living close to the coast. Ancient Nubia had been a source oif black slaves in antiquity. The port of Massawa and the Dahlak Archipelago became imports hubs in the slave trade. Both Arabs and Persians set up trading posts along the Indian Ocean coast and slaves were one of the primary trade items. A shift from hunting to keeping livestock dirst occurred along the the Limpopo River, in modern Zimbabwe (about 9th century AD). This occurred later in Africa because people did not suceed in domesticating native animales like wilferbeast and zebras. Rather non-native spoecies were acquired from outside the refion--sheep and cattle. The source of the livestock is unknown, but presuably came from from the Bantu people to the north. At about the samne time th Karanga/Shona began speaking a Bantu language. The Karanga people began selling animal furs and ivory. They may have shipped these trade goods down the Limpopo River to the settlements on the Indian Ocean coast. There is also evidence of mining gold in Zimbabwe. These goods were exchanged for glass beads and cotton cloth from India. Arabs both in East Africa and coastal India became intermediaries in this trade by dominating trade in the Arabian Sea/Indian Ocean (th century). The most advanced civilization in Central Africa was Great Zimbabwe. People began buildig stone palaces (11th century). These were the first monumental structures ever seen in central Africa. They were called zimbabwes, The most impressive structures were built (mid-13th century). Great Zimbabwe was the only major black African states in East Africa. The Great Zimbabwe complex was built by Shona-speaking cattlemen (13th-14th centuries). Information on Great Zimbanwe, other than the stone ruins, is very limited. For the most part there was no strong African state to resist the Arab slave trader who benefitted from wars between African tribes. Some tribes cooperated with the Arabs. Trade through East Africa declined (15th century). This undercut the economic underpinings if Great Zimbabwe and the cities and important trading began to be abandoned. The best known Arab trading post in East Africa became Zanzibar. Its island location made it very secure. In the later period of the slave trade, the Sultan of Oman gained control over much of the Indian Ocean coast. He oversaw the slave trade both to sell slaves, but to obtain labor for his palm oil and spice plantations. They became so profitable that he moved his capital to Zanzibr. East Africa thus served as an important region for the Arab slave trade until the intervention of the British in the late 19th century.

Central Africa

Central Africa is coinventionally described asc the area south of the Tibesti mountains and centered on the emense rainforest basin of the Congo (Zaire) River. Atlantic coastal areas around the nouth of the Congo mifgt aklso ve considered Central Africa. Central Africa was and in many ways is the most isolated part of Africa. The people of Central Africa until relatively recent times had no contact with people outside the region. The people of the people of Central Africa were among the most primitive on the continent. The isolation was one factor. The Congo Basin had even less outside contact with the outside world than the eastern areas of Central Africa. The most important state in Central Africa was the Kongo Kihgdom, They were centered along the Altantic coast the area between central and southern Africa. The Kongo Kingdom were the most important of a series of states that arose along the Atlantic coast known as the Middle Atlantic kingdoms. The Kongo Kingdom began to coalese when a group of Bakongo (Kongo people) moved south of the Congo River into northern Angola (late-14th cerntury). hey conquered the people they encountered and built up Mbanza Kongo (Mbanza Congo) as their capital. The Bakongo were notable for assimilating conquered people rather than subgecating them. The Kongo Kingdom declined (16th century), but persisted into the19th century. Prior to the European colonial era, many tribes fled into the interior from coastal areas to escape the slave trade. Livingstone and Stanley were the first Europeans to reach the Congo Basin. They reported back to the European public on the extent of the Arab slave trade there. The Arab Tippo Tip (Hemedi bin Muhammad el Marjebi) was a particularly notorious Arab slaver. He was born in Zanzibar and at age 18 years began trading slaves and ivory, between ing between the interior of Central Africa and coastal towns in East Africa. From a modest beginning he built an emnensely profitable commercial empire. He dominated the slave trade between the Upper Congo, Lake Tanganyika and Bagamoyo on the coast (1870s). Tip's slaves were shipped on from Bagamoyo to Zanzibar where they were sold to foreign merchants. The British Royal Navy worked to impede the slave trade in the Indian Ocean and at coastal trading centes like Zanzibar. Until the arrival of the French and Belgians in Central Africa, howeever, there was no political entity capable of resisting Tip and other slavers in the interior of Central Africa. These two countries established colonies in the late-19th century as part of the European Scramble for Africa..

Southern Africa

Changing environmental conditions and the dissolution of the Kongo kingdom to the northwest along the Atlantic coast led to escalating violence which lasted for some time. Riival kingdoms struggled to fill the vacuume and dominate the important natural resources. Arab (in the east) and European (in the west) demand for slaves exacerbated the endemic tribal warfare. Portugal contributes to the overall instability as it established Angola--at first a small colony at the northwestern corner tip of modern country. The Luba Kingom began to rise after the arrival of the Portuguese (late-16th century). Shortly after the Lunda and Kuba Kingdoms appeared (early-17th century). They occupied overlaping aras of the north eastern savanah. All three were multi-ethnic states with reasonably advanced political systems. The nonarchies developed courtly cultures. The Kuba kingdom was the most isolated and was not in direct contact with European which established themselves along the coast. Lunda monarchs promoted trade and opened routes to the coast. The Lunda expanded southward into the African Copperbelt (modern Zambia) and east toward Lake Tanganyika. This established control over the trade routes leading to the East African coast as well as the southern interior. The Luba consolidate their control of neighboring peoples to the north.

Foreign Penetration

Arab penetration

Slavery existed from time inmenorial in Africa. It was part of the indigenous social system. A well established trade in slaves began as Arab raiders began penetraing African areas south of the Sahara (9th century). Arab-Berber traders penetrated into sub-Saharan Africa through desert caravans, the Nile River, and by estanlish trading postas along the Indian coast of the continent. The black African kingdoms they encountered as they moved into the interior varied over time. Africans began appearing at markets in Mesopotamia, India, Persia and Arabia. Arab slave raids varied over time. Many were conducted by local groups for profit without any centralized organization. Others were sponsored or encouraged by important political figures. The Sultan of Cairo is known to have sponsored sub-Saharan raids extending as farcas Darfur in the modern Sudan. Villagers resisted these raids on a local basis, forming militias and building a variety of defenses. Only limited information is available on the early years of the Arab conducted African slave trade. With the appearance of the Europeans the demand for slaves gradually grew (15th century). The African slave trade developed into a an emenselhy profitable commercial undertaking supplying markets in the Nuslim world as well as Ruropean colonies in the Americas and other locations. The demand was fed by regular and massive deportations organised largely by Arab slavers. The term Arabs in this context includes both ethnic Arabs and Arabized (Islamacized) Africans. They were assisted by African tribes such as the Nyamwezi who became notable for slaving.

European Penetration

Europeans had little access to Africa, blocked for centuries by Arab control of North Africa. This only began to change in the 15th cenntury with the European voyages of discovery with the Portuguese edgeing their way down the African coast. Like the Arabs along the Indian Ocean coast, European influence along the Atlantic coast was first limited to coastal regions.

Scramble for Africa

THe African political situation changed radically after the Napoleonic Wars (1799-1815). First France began to colonize North Africa. For much of the mid-19th century, Europeans confined their area of control to coastal areas. Then the Scramble for Africa began in the late 19th century as European countries staked out formal colonies. This provess was culminated with the Bohr War in which the British seized control of the Bohr Repunlics (1900-02) and France created a protectorate in Morocco.


Franklin, John Hope. From Slavery to Freedom: A History of Negro Americans (Vuntage Books: New York, 1969), 686p.

Pankhurst, Richard. The Ethiopian Borderlands: Essays in Regional History from Ancient Times to the End of the 18th Century (Asmara, Eritrea: Red Sea Press, 1997).


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Created: 12:16 AM 4/2/2007
Last updated: 7:48 AM 3/6/2013